Mental health has been at the forefront of discussions among leaders and for good reason too. About 1 in 6 people in the general population in the UK were affected by a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression before the pandemic – this, no doubt, got worse with the emergence of covid19. If left unmanaged, poor mental health can lead to depression, declined productivity and absenteeism, and disability. And life expectancy may reduce as much as 21 years due to physical associated problems brought about by mental health difficulties.
Mental health must be managed with consistency and respect, and employers have a major role to play in this.
During the pandemic it is no surprise that mental health has deteriorated. Freedoms were stripped, uncertainty, unemployment, a change in day-to-day routines, loneliness and a lack of exercise all contributed to an increase in anxiety and depression levels. Stress and burnout were also reported by a number of people during this pandemic - and continues to be an issue.
Corporations have a major responsibility towards the wellbeing of their employees. The average employee in the UK spends over 34 hours per week at work, for more “corporate” desk jobs (and most of you reading this) it is not uncommon for this to rise to 60 to 90 hours per week. Factor in the average 62 minutes/23-mile commute, plus the odd email check, overtime or business trip, and we can safely say that work consumes 1/3 of our week. All this is without mentioning our “other jobs” such as looking after a family, domestic admin and, for a number of individuals, managing enduring mental health conditions.
With so much time spent at work, surely we owe it to ourselves, and to one another, to create the best possible environment for us to thrive in, not just as professionals, but as people.
Here, we interview Dr. Olivia Remes.
Dr. Olivia Remes is Programme Director of “Leading Mental Health in the Workplace” at the Moller Centre, University of Cambridge – aimed at leaders, those working in HR or anyone managing a team and wishing to gain skills in the mental health and wellbeing arena, and learning how to better support their employees. Through the programmes, participants are supported in bringing an extra dimension to their leadership – one which allows them to increase the effectiveness of their organisation as a whole: https://www.mollerinstitute.com/open-programmes/leading-mental-health-in-the-workplace/
She has received executive coaching training at the University of Cambridge, and is also a speaker and an author. Her book, The Instant Mood Fix, is published by Penguin Random House and is a best-seller in its category. It contains coping strategies for anxiety, stress, panic, indecision, low self-control and other patterns that can hold people back. For almost a decade, she has worked to develop a system of coping strategies that can help people achieve their goals in life, become more decisive and confident, and let go of fearful mindsets – whether that’s at work or in their personal lives.
What are the implications of organisations not supporting employee wellbeing?
According to the Stevenson/Farmer review, 15% of employees are affected by symptoms of an existing mental health problem (a percentage which, most likely, has increased during the pandemic).
There are implications of organisations not supporting the wellbeing and mental health of their employees. This may include staff turnover, employees feeling dissatisfied with their jobs and lives, decreased productivity, and lowered motivation at work. Poor mental health can lead to a decline in physical health, increased disability claims, and an overall sicker workforce. And the costs are substantial. A well-commissioned independent study showed that at least £33 billion are spent by employers on aspects such as declined productivity and employee absence due to illness.
If organisations invest in the wellbeing and mental health of their workforce, the evidence base shows that the return on investment is significant.
Which changes to work-life balance, precipitated by the pandemic (e.g., remote working), do you expect to continue post-pandemic?
The pandemic has caused a massive change in the way we work and the way we balance our home and work life. Teleworking has become the new norm and the shift to flexible/hybrid work is at the forefront of discussions. I believe that certain changes to the way people work will be made by some companies after the restrictions ease (and remote working may continue in some form).
During the pandemic, many people have had to work remotely, and this helped various individuals establish a better work-life balance. Of course, there are downsides to remote working, including blurred boundaries between home and work life and never “switching” off from work, as well as burnout.
Surveys suggest that a number of employees prefer working away from the office and having flexibility. However, traditional ways of working, such as being in an office setting still remain attractive because of the social aspect. Workers do enjoy the close interaction that comes with being in an office environment and having the opportunity to chat with their co-workers face-to-face. This provides an element of social support – a factor that is highly important for wellbeing and mental health. So, it seems that people may want the best of both worlds – flexibility to work remotely and the social interaction that comes with being in an office setting- and if employers are to keep their workers happy and engaged, they may need to take these aspects into consideration moving forward post-pandemic.
There are still other reasons as to why leaders need to answer the flexible/hybrid working question. It appears that a sizeable proportion of people are thinking about leaving their current job this year. If those in leadership positions wish to retain a talented, diverse workforce, they may need to give additional thought to employees’ preference when it comes to new ways of working and work-life balance.
Can you share a framework that can help organisations in supporting employee wellbeing, and how can employee data be used to support internal actions?
The Stevenson/Farmer review lays out an excellent framework for organisations to use in order to improve the mental health of their workforce.
The Stevenson/Farmer Review highlights how leaders can contribute to a thriving workforce. It shows core standards that effective mental health programmes should adopt to support employee wellbeing and mental health.
Mental health core standards according to the Stevenson/Farmer review:
- “Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan”
- “Develop mental health awareness among employees”
- “Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling”
- “Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work-life balance and opportunities for development”
- “Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors”
- “Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing”
Canada has also created frameworks to support the mental health of employees. One of these is called The Standard, and is an excellent resource – it contains documents, videos, examples, and exercises for leaders to help them in their mission of improving mental health at work. Aspects such as psychological safety, workplace culture, maintaining employee engagement and motivation are some of the aspects discussed and many resources are provided.
How can employee data be used to support internal actions of organisations?
This is something I have been involved in; an example of how employee data may be used to support internal actions include the use of mental fitness platforms: providing employees with access to such a platform that identifies issues the employees are struggling with and suggesting actions for improved wellbeing. Companies may use this to gain insight into the wellbeing levels of the staff and determine whether any steps need to be taken (increased support or potential reconfiguration).
Where is the line between day-to-day mental health and mental health disorders, and how should companies adapt to particularly suffering individuals?
Let’s look at an example: anxiety. There is a difference between ‘normal’ anxiety that human beings experience from time to time, and that which is pathological. We all deal with stressors and challenges at various times and these have an impact on us. For example, deadlines might be making us feel stressed and anxious, or the thought of presenting at work could be making us sweat and feel tense. These emotions are normal and part of everyday life. However, when the anxiety gets to be so high that it starts interfering with our everyday lives – for example, it starts to become debilitating – this is when it can become problematic. A mental health problem can affect people in various areas of their work or personal lives. For example, someone with an anxiety disorder might find it difficult to concentrate on their tasks at work and fall asleep at night, or could be experiencing muscle tension and restlessness. When we cannot work, socialise or fulfil other important roles, this is when an anxiety disorder might be present. Mental health problems can increase the risk for disability, health service use and suicide.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
It is important that employers and organisations take mental health and wellbeing into account. An example of the way that companies may adapt in order to accommodate the needs of individuals who may be suffering is to implement mental health core standards, such as those suggested by the Stevenson/Farmer review. Organisations may also wish to direct affected employees towards various resources/services for help, such as counselling or financial specialist services. Finances have been a cause for concern among some individuals during this pandemic, and organisations that take the time to listen to their employees’ needs and direct employees to where support may be found, show they care.
Do you believe that all managers should undertake mental health training and what would be the benefits of that?
I believe that managers should undertake mental health training because this allows them to learn how to identify issues, what actions they can take, how they can support those working for them, and contribute to an overall happier, more productive workforce. Through training, they may learn how to: make employees feel respected and safe at work, how to contribute to worker engagement and motivation, and create a positive workplace culture.
There are several examples as to how organisations can incorporate mental health/wellbeing into the workplace, such as: mental health awareness and team-building activities, opportunities for mentoring and coaching at work, having a monthly focus on wellbeing, and others. When organisations take the time to listen to their employees and find out about issues they may be struggling with, they show they care. This, I believe, can go a long way towards employee commitment towards the organisation and creating a satisfied workforce.
In Business Services there is a need to address the problem of talent management. First, there is a link between mental health and talent retention in the industry. When many skills are transferrable there is a greater chance that the workforce will and can easily move to a competitor. Therefore, employee wellbeing is a key pillar to retaining the best talent. Secondly, when we consider the ubiquitous role of HR in Business Services, there is a prominent need to understand, capture and nurture talent across the company’s various business units. Therefore, HR representatives need to be coached in the most appropriate way to manage the multitude of mental health and employee wellbeing concerns across the company.
These core areas are forcing business leaders and HR teams to pay more attention to work-life balance, not only as a basic topic for humanity and employee wellbeing, but as a need to address core issues in talent acquisition and retention, which directly influence the employee and customer experience.
At Kaizen Institute, we work side-by-side with leaders to help them provide better and lower-cost services to the business units, not only by implementing operational excellence tools, but also methods that help and enhance the employee experience. KAIZEN™ can help leaders in Business Services retain and deliver better employee experiences, which will also support business growth.